This week I’m shopping not one but two mystery novels to agents, meanwhile wondering what I want to write next. One of the two is a realistic historical mystery; the other is a crossover YA/fantasy/mystery set in another world, so I’ve been doing a little research into fantasy/mystery hybrids. Not actually buying any books quite yet — just trying to see what’s happening in the market.
A lot is happening. And as a writer, I need to process it somehow. Do I want to follow a trend, and if so, which trend? Or do I want to go my own way?
Mystery writers tend, almost without exception, to write series. I’ve understood that since I was but a wee sprat. So should I start writing a sequel to one of my books? That’s today’s question.
What I like about the two books I’ve just finished is that in each of them, the central character has to contend with a really difficult emotional predicament. To put it another way, the character has an intense internal conflict. This is, I think, one of the essentials of strong fiction, and by golly I managed to pull it off. Twice.
Internal conflict is not, unfortunately, to be found in most mystery series. It’s not hard to see why. The sleuth in a series is an unchanging character, but solving a terrible personal predicament changes a character. The stories in almost any mystery series you can name, from Sherlock Holmes down to Harry Bosch, can be read in pretty much any order. The details may change — V. I. Warshawski may have a different boyfriend in this book, for instance — but the sleuth and the story setup remain the same.
That’s good marketing, but it’s bad literature.
In my case, the sleuth in While Caesar Sang of Hercules is a young man named Germanus. He’s a slave. He takes terrible risks in order to prove his master’s daughter innocent, and at the end (big spoiler here, not) he earns his freedom and they’re able to marry. If I use Germanus as the sleuth in a sequel, he won’t have anything like that internal conflict. He’ll be just another amateur sleuth on the trail of yet another evil-doer.
To be honest, this idea doesn’t appeal to me. I’d rather start over with a different setting and a different lead character, somebody who is grappling with a different impossible predicament. But that wouldn’t be a good marketing strategy! The only top-ranked mystery writer I can think of who got away with this sort of thing was Dick Francis. He generally used a different lead character in every book; the constant element was the horse-racing. That was his signature.
I asked the folks on a Facebook mystery writers’ group to suggest some crossover fantasy mysteries. (Market research.) The authors they suggested included Kevin Hearne, Ilona Andrews, Patricia Briggs, Michael Darling, and Kelley Armstrong. All of these, as it turns out, are plowing the fertile fields of urban paranormal. You know, like the Dresden Files. If you’re pitching a book to an agent, it is very, very useful to be able to say, “My book is a lot like XYZ,” where XYZ is an absolutely rock-crushing best-seller. Or in the case of mysteries, a best-selling series. Agents like to hear this sort of thing, because they only earn money if they can sell your book to a publisher, and the publisher quite naturally hopes to make a tidy profit.
Why would a publisher take a chance on a different book, when five agents are pitching books that are just what the market wants?
Series, though…. While poking around on Amazon, I found a fellow named Robert J. Crane, whose “Girl in the Box” paranormal fantasy series runs to 42 (that is not a typo) novels. The authors I’ve listed above have, in some cases, several series to their name, each with nine or ten books.
How on Earth do they do it? Ghost writers in the sky? Probably not. What they probably do is crank out four or five books every year. Me, I’m certainly capable of typing four or five books a year. I can crank out 2,500 words a day without breaking a sweat. That’s a 90,000-word novel every six weeks. And I’m quite capable of writing publishable first draft. I’ve been doing it for 40 years.
Writing a book that has some emotional depth, a plot that makes sense, and a faintly fresh premise — no, I couldn’t do that in six weeks. Six months would be more likely.
Maybe, instead of dreaming up another eccentric and probably unmarketable book that I take pains over and feel good about, I should slap together three books in a derivative but clearly marketable series and pitch the series to an agent. Vampires and zombies and ghouls, oh my!
Forty-two books in the “Girl in the Box” series. I still can’t quite fathom how he did it. Or why he didn’t die of projectile vomiting somewhere back around book 19. But then, I’m a terrible snob.
I’ve read a lot of mystery series. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books I’ve read about three times each. Stout’s plotting is rather thin. What works about those books is the ongoing tension between Wolfe and Archie. That’s brilliant — and it never changes. Wolfe and Archie are not moving characters. Sara Paretsky, check. Michael Connelly, check. Ross MacDonald, check. Agatha Christie, check. Ellis Peters, check. Connelly’s Harry Bosch certainly has more external conflicts than Miss Marple or Brother Cadfael, but he’s always just good old hard-nosed, pugnacious Harry Bosch. He quits the LAPD and goes into private practice, and then rejoins the force. His daughter grows up and he meets his half-brother, but he never changes.
Forty-two books. A book every six weeks. Maybe I ought to try it.